In the late 90s I got really into the sound of the Hammond Organ and Rhodes electric piano, probably through the acid-jazz and neo-soul scene at the time, which led me to discover the great artists that were using these instruments in the 70s.
Of course, I wanted to learn and play these instruments myself, but owning the real vintage hardware was not really an option due to the high cost of these rare instruments. Also, I really wanted to use these sounds with my band at the time, and lugging those massive beasts around to gigs was not an attractive option.
I tried all the popular synthesizers and keyboard of the time, in search of these epic sounds. I tried the Roland Fantom, Yamaha Motif and everything else that was available.
But they all fell massively short. The organ sounded terrible, with awful rotary Leslie speaker simulations and weak Hammond tones. The controls on the synthesizers did not offer the real-time controls that were present on the real organs.
The Rhodes electric pianos were equally disappointing. They did not sound warm and full like the recordings I had been listening too. The expressiveness was lacking, and there was no detail in the sounds. Worst of all was the velocity switches in the samples with just a soft sample and a hard sample with an obvious and ugly transition between the two variations.
I tried them all, even instruments costing thousands of dollars, but frankly, they were all rubbish.
But then in 2001, Swedish electronic instrument manufacturer Clavia released an intriguing keyboard that they called the Nord Electro. Before that, I was well aware of the brand and admired their innovative red Nord Lead virtual analog synthesizers and digital drum kits.
The original instrument had two sections, an organ section with a digitally modelled Hammond B3 and Leslie speaker, complete with innovative digital LED drawbars and buttons for all the essential organ controls.
Then there was the electric piano section, with a few variations of sampled Rhodes, Wurlitzer and clavinet.
To top it off, the icing on the cake was a simple but effective multi-effects engine modelled after classic stomp boxes that a keyboard player might use back in the day.
And that was it. No more no less. No complicated LCD screen or menu diving. Everything right there on the front panel. It seemed like a dream come true.
This of course made me extremely excited and I made a beeline for my local music store in Stockholm, Södermalm called Estrad. Patrik the staff member kindly showed me the new keyboard and I got busy trying it out.
I absolutely loved it at first sight and play. The sounds were incredible, and the user interface was intuitive and quick to use. The piano sounds were expressive, enjoyable to play and sounded extremely authentic. Nord had succeeded where all the other manufacturers had failed.
The only issue for me was the price. This was a pricey keyboard, with the 61 note version coming in at $1500 and the 73 about $1800. It was unfortunately out of my reach.
Fortunately, there is a thriving second-hand market for used synths and keyboards in Stockholm. Within just a few months I picked up a lightly used Electro 1 73 with a flight case and immediately started gigging with it.
After just a year or two, Clavia released the Nord Electro 2 with very little differences apart from some internal improvements to the motherboard to improve reliability that plagued the version 1.
I soon did a trade-up from the NE1 73 to a brand new NE2 with the legendary soft case. Nord was the first brand to introduce a backpack case as far as I know. I was cycling to the gigs with a Hammond and Rhodes on my back, just imagine that!
I went on to purchase a NE2 rack, then a NE2 73, and in later years another NE2 61 which I featured on my channel as my favourite synth ever. I then picked up a NE5 73 and now I own a NE6 61.
As some of you might remember, I even built my own dual manual Hammond organ clone, housing an Electro and an extra Fatar controller keyboard to play the lower manual.
As you can tell, I really do rather love this keyboard.
The original design concept of the Electro was to do one job well which was emulating electromechanical instruments, meaning just organ, electric piano and clavinet. I distinctly remember the original marketing material “A Swiss army knife is not the best tool for the job” which took a snipe at the bloated workstation synths of the era.
But soon, by popular demand, Clavia added a quite diabolical mono acoustic grand piano and soon later a half-decent stereo sampled grand piano.
Sadly though, this led them to abandon their original design philosophy and now the Electro has become the swiss army knife with every sound under the sun available. With every new feature added the user interface became cluttered, even bewildering with many shift functions, a LCD screen and menus to manage the complexity.
I always thought that this was a real shame. Personally, I feel much more fondness for the earlier models.
Another complaint I have about Nord is that onboard sample memory is simply not enough. There isn’t space to load all the available instruments from the Nord Sample Sound Library in the best quality.
This forces a compromise between number of instruments and quality. If you want a lot of sounds, then you’ll have to install the small versions with fewer samples.
It’s tedious to download and transfer sounds from the PC to the keyboard. I think it would be so much better if everything was available onboard from the factory.
In this age of cheap, fast and high-capacity SD or SSD storage this is a baffling and inexplicable design choice.
I also take exception to the fact that we still don’t get a pitch bend, mod wheel or even a basic synth filter. For sure, not necessary for Hammond and Rhodes, but essential for all the new sound categories and for when using as a controller.
Today the Electro faces some very tough competition, in particular from Yamaha with their YC series which beats the Electro in nearly every department, both in features, specifications and sounds.
Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for the Electro and when I sell mine, I’ve learned I will miss it and yearn for another.
I’ll always be grateful to the legend that is Hans Nordelius at Clavia for recognising and serving the needs of keyboard players like myself. He also deserves credit for pioneering a new category of instrument, the Stage Keyboard. Mr Nordelius, thank you from all of us.